Monday, June 28, 2010

Album Review: Mark Eitzel – Superhits International

This was an album of demos recorded by Mark Eitzel in 1999 but never officially released, only sold on his 2001 tour. He has released several demo CDs, but this one is by far the most realised. Most of the others are mainly him and an acoustic guitar but this one features a full band on most tracks, and is definitely of releasable quality.

The Man with the Hole in his Foot appears to be a straightforward country-tinged tune, but it’s shredded toward the end by some blisteringly distorted guitar from Vudi. 1000 Miles is a fine song, featuring Eitzel’s classic yearnings for lost hopes and dreams.

Hold Me is a country song that sounds almost too obvious for one of Eitzel’s regular albums. It’s ‘perfectly’ constructed with a catchy melody, a strong chorus and typical country lyrics (“I know I’ll never be a rich man”, “hold me if you don’t have anyone”). Charm School on the other hand is like a classic 60s soul tune, full of slinky guitar. What keeps these songs from being nailed on ‘hits’ is of course Eitzel’s voice, which will never have commercial appeal.

The second half of the album by and large features more stripped down songs (Come In, Will You Ever Make Room At Your Table). Kristin Intro is a downright odd piece of electronica, featuring a female, presumably Kristin reciting lyrics to Barry Manilow’s Mandy amongst other things.

The final track, Tomorrow is the finest thing on here. Reminiscent of Sun Smog Seahorse from Eitzel’s underrated 1998 album Caught in a Trap, it consists of him singing plain and simply over some delicately plucked guitar, and it’s a thing of beauty.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Album Review: Arab Strap – Elephant Shoe

Falkirk’s finest lightened up a bit on 1999’s Elephant Shoe, though what this really meant was replacing their customary bitterness with a stoic acceptance of ‘domesticity’. This album is unfairly criticised for being too commercial, perhaps a legacy of their move from indie label Chemikal Underground to Go! Discs. I have no idea where this idea came from as the lyrics deal with their usual preoccupations of drinking and relationships, though maybe it’s a little subtler (ie. cleaner) than previous albums.

Opening track Cherubs starts with a dull, cheesey beat which makes you think you’re listening to 90s Euro-dance hell but it’s merely the backdrop for a sort of comedown anthem, as they say “the walls breathe.” We’re back on more familiar territory with One Four Seven One, featuring some Malcolm Middleton’s quite beautiful guitar and Aidan Moffat’s lyrics leaving little to the imagination.

There is less emphasis on the reassuringly vulgar lyrics on this album, allowing the music more room to inhabit the space and fill the room. There are some lovely touches here and there, a prime example is some incongruous banjo on Pyjamas (key lyric: “do you really need pyjamas in this heat”). Later, Direction of a Strong Man features some suffocating Mogwai-like music, which overshadows the lyrics. Tanned on the other hand is almost like 80s lounge, featuring breezy horns and percussion, dancing dangerously close to Sade territory!

Aries the Ram features some poignant piano at its midpoint, as it delivers the devastating lyrics “I was a virgin, you were on holiday, I’d had 7 glasses when she asked me to stay”. The tension is barely lifted on Pro (Your) Life, as the music is all exposed nerve endings and lyrics dealing with termination. Finally a little sunlight creeps in with Hello Daylight, as the a plaintively plucked guitar starts off the song, Moffat singing (yes, singing!) “I sprained my arm for you”. It must be love.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Album Review: Stone Temple Pilots – Core

The Stone Temple Pilots’ debut album came out in 1992, in the height of early 90s grunge. The band were annihilated by the critics for aping the Seattle grunge bands (they were from San Diego), and this wasn’t helped by singer Scott Weiland’s vocals, which are very reminiscent of Eddie Vedder on this album.

It’s probably their heaviest album. Tracks like Dead and Bloated, Sex Type Thing and Crackerman pack a considerable wallop, driven by the guitar and bass of the DeLeo brothers, fine drumming from Eric Kretz and Weiland’s bellowing vocals. Sex Type Thing in particular barrels along with a sledgehammer riff and great bass work.

They were able to slow things down on this album, with Creep and early anthem Plush, one of their most famous songs. Though the lyrics give little indication as to what the song is about (lots of strange lines like “when the dogs begin to smell her”) but the whole song is built on an immense guitar riff, as the song manages a clever trick of being heavy and laid-back at the same time.

Although the album is pretty one-dimensional, it rocks like hell on its finer moments.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Album Review: Morrissey – Bona Drag

Morrissey’s late 80s singles were complied on Bona Drag. It’s a little hit and miss, opening with weak, jaunty single Piccadilly Palare. Much better is Interesting Drug, which features glorious guitar from Craig Gannon and a soaring melody. In other words vintage Morrissey.

Just as good, though markedly different is November Spawned a Monster. It’s darker, featuring a forlorn vocal from Morrissey, but most notable an almost strangled wordless vocal from Mary Margaret O’Hara in the bridge. There are some great lyrics here: “and if the lights were out would you even dare to kiss her full on the mouth or anywhere.”

Morrissey since his days in the Smiths had always released strong B-sides, and thankfully many of them are captured here. Such a Little Thing Makes Such a Big Difference has a quirky melody with some unpredictable twists and turns, while Hairdresser On Fire has a soaring melody ably aided by Stephen Street’s piano showcasing Morrissey’s preoccupation with London.

The collection does contain some of his weaker singles, Ouija Board, Ouija Board being a case in point. The single arrived at precisely the point when my previously ardent devotion to buying up all things Smiths and Morrissey related began to waver. It’s a pretty uninspiring tune, almost inoffensive. Much better is final track Disappointed, featuring a strutting guitar line and wonderfully self-deprecating lyrics from Morrissey: “this is the last song I will ever sing”, followed by cheers from the crowd… then he sings “no I’ve changed my mind again”, followed by a disappointed “awww”! It’s cheesy but it works.

This album is not far off being essential for Morrissey fans. It’s let down by one or two Morrissey-by-numbers tracks (Last of the Famous International Playboys, Yes I Am Blind) but these are more than made for by the high points mentioned above.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Album Review: Whiskeytown – Rural Free Delivery

This is a curious collection of songs. It was released in 1997 but the recordings date back to 1995, before their debut album Faithless Street. The band didn’t want this released as it’s a bit of a cash-in by an old record company but I for one am glad it came out as it showcases Ryan Adams and co at their most rocking.

The band kicks off with Take Your Guns To Town, a yeehawing rocking country fiddle and electric guitar combination which ticks all the right boxes, and they keep up this pace with Nervous Breakdown, a Black Flag song rendered as country.

They slow the pace down a little with the likes of Tennessee Square and the wonderfully titled Pawn Shop Ain’t No Place for a Wedding Ring, which still kick ass, slightly more slowly. The songs are mostly about sitting round being broke and drunk (“I got no money to spare so I sit here and watch from the porch, drinkin’ whiskey in granddaddy’s chair.”). In other words, classic country clichés, but wow they are delivered perfectly.

It’s not all good, some of the faster tracks are a little too fast for their own good, though special mention to Oklahoma (which Adams hates apparently!) which races along helter skelter at breakneck speed, guitars careering along and Adams’ vocals straining to keep up. This and final track Angels Are Messengers From God (retitled as Faithless Street) featured on their debut album in slightly more polished takes.

The charm of these tracks is that they are not polished, more rough and ready. Ryan Adams’ vocals are rough but in my opinion superior to his singing on his later albums.
I’m immensely partial to this more rocking country sound, summed up by a line mentioned on a previous post “so I started this damn country band cos punk rock was too hard to sing” (from Angels Are Messengers From God). Neither Whiskeytown nor Ryan Adams rocked like this again.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Album Review: Jóhann Jóhannson – And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound of Bees

Jóhann Jóhannson is an Icelandic composer who has just popped up on my radar. This album is a soundtrack to a Marc Craste animated film which came out last year, but has just become available more widely.

Most of the pieces start with piano, but are joined by strings, and in the main is quite uplifting. There are some ambient sounds added in here and there (birds, thunder) but quite low in the mix, which is a nice touch. Other tracks feature skyscrapingly high otherworldly choirs. As far as reference points go, it’s vaguely reminiscent of Arvo Part, though the strings are far more dramatic. Some of the pieces are a little under-realised, and finish just when they are getting going, but at the same time the short duration time makes them more digestible.

It’s quite chilled out in places (The Flat, Pods, Dying City), these pieces sounding almost Eno-like. Like a lot of soundtracks, similar musical themes crop up over the course of the soundtrack which makes it a cohesive listen.

A brooding, church-like organ permeates Siren Song, giving it a pleasingly foreboding atmosphere.

The album is definitely worth your time, at only 36 minutes it’s quite digestible and is both uplifting and serene. Check it out if you like Peter Broderick’s classical diversion, or even Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack to The Road (especially on Escape).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Album Review: Smog – Dongs of Sevotion

Smog’s first album post-Jim O’Rourke came out in 2000, and is (even for them) a strangely disjointed listen. Bill Callahan has forsaken the simplicity of earlier albums like Red Apple Falls with a more ‘all over the place’ feel.

The album opens with the cheap synths of Justice Aversion, before starting in earnest with Dress Sexy At My Funeral. This track borrows a little in feel from Knock Knock’s Cold Blooded Old Times but turns into a classic Velvet Underground style grind drawl grind, Callahan delivering a great Lou Reed drawl. It’s a great idea for a song, and lyrically is very direct, leaving little to the imagination, the central message being that his wife should behave flirtatiously as a tribute to him (!). A classic.

Strayed sees the reurn of the cheap synths, and is pretty much a simple groove for the whole song, a little like the previous track slowed-down. The Hard Road features distorted guitar, a bit like this album’s No Dancing (Knock Knock). Easily Led is a distinct improvement, a pretty piano-led tune with the merest hint of percussion. It’s kind of a cross between the vulnerability of To Be of Use (Red Apple Falls) and the poignancy of River Guard (Knock Knock), though at barely 3 minutes it’s a little short, leaving you longing for more.

Bloodflow on the other hand outstays its welcome somewhat. It’s a complete change of mood, like many of the other tracks it’s mainly a simple groove for the seven minutes that it lasts, with backing choruses and thrilling changes in tempo thrown into the mix. Nineteen is a ghoulish, drowsy yet haunted sparse ballad complete with spooky wailing while Distance creeps along similarly until halfway through when the song explodes into life with synths, electric guitar, backing vocals and drums. Again there’s a particular Lou Reed sound to this track, though in common with many other songs it’s a little overlong at nearly eight minutes

A couple of long, sparse, downbeat tunes follow (Devotion, Cold Discovery) before the funereal yet triumphant trudge of Permanent Smile. Despite numerous misgivings on my part, the album does get under your skin, though it’s not the strongest Smog album.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The enduring appeal of Pearl Jam

Much derided as the corporate flipside to Nirvana’s integrity, this judgement was never correct. It’s not like Pearl Jam came from nowhere, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard certainly “paid their dues”, toiling for years in firstly Green River and then Mother Love Bone.

Singer Eddie Vedder is one of the more divisive figures in modern music. His detractors will accuse him of spawning a myriad of lame copy cat singers. This is undoubtedly true, as anyone familiar with the middle of the road American bands which came after grunge in the mid 90s can testify to, as he influenced everybody from Hootie and the Blowfish to Creed. But his voice is a versatile instrument, capable of remarkable sensitivity as well as powerful intensity.

They burst on to the music scene in a mass of hair, plaid shirts and cut-off shorts, looking every inch the grunge cliché. With 2 guitarists, Gossard and the relentlessly soloing Mike McCready, they provided an old-fashioned rock assault, driven by Ament’s bass and various different drummers.

Pearl Jam were never really a ‘grunge band’. They sound less Black Sabbath crossed with punk, more like a heavier early 70s The Who (Vedder is a huge fan). They are probably best known for their debut album Ten, which was everywhere in the early 90s. It was full of catchy rock anthems (Even Flow, Alive, Jeremy), with equally eye-catching videos, ideal for MTV (in the days when MTV still played music). They had a ‘big’ sound, perfect for blasting out of stereos everywhere. They followed it up with vs, which had almost as many anthems, though at this point they had made a point of not making videos for any of their songs, to avoid over exposure. This only served to get them more attention!

However their career became more interesting from this point on. 1994 was annus horribilis for the whole grunge/Seattle scene with the untimely death of Kurt Cobain. Cobain had criticised the band, calling them sell-outs, but subsequently they reconciled, so his death affected the band greatly and informed that year’s Vitalogy album. It received mixed reviews when it came out, caused by the lack of radio-friendly singles and also some cringeworthy musical ‘experiments’ (Bugs, Stupidmop). Despite this, the album has endured as one of their stronger albums. At its core, it contains some really strong hard rock songs (Not For You, Corduroy) and also some great slower tracks (Nothingman, Betterman, Immortality), which sound soulful and timeless, great songs played with real passion.

1996’s No Code followed this trend, eschewing the obvious rock anthems with some blindingly good subtler songs (and some great packaging). I was lucky enough to catch them live in Dublin on this tour and they really were superb, playing for more than 2 hours, pulling out gem after gem. Towards the end the vibe was almost like sitting around a campfire, while they played some of their lesser known material. I missed my last train home that night but there was no way I was leaving until it was over.

They have continued in this vein, through Yield, Binaural, Riot Act, Pearl Jam and their most recent, Backspacer. Nothing grungy about these albums, they all showcase the band's unashamed classic rock, updated for the post-grunge audience. None of them are perfect albums, but each contains a couple of minor classics.

Speaking of minor classics, they released a collection of non-album tracks, many of which were considered but ultimately rejected for their various albums. Entitled Lost Dogs, it’s actually a really good listen, and track for track, possible superior to many of their later albums. The track Dead Man had been written for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, and it points the way to Eddie Vedder’s superb solo album Into the Wild (soundtrack to the film).

Quite simply the last great rock and roll careerist band, ie a band worth following through different phases and albums.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Concert Review: Stone Temple Pilots – Olympia, Dublin, 14th June 2010

Last night I took my head out of the World Cup to go and see my favourite bunch of meat-heads, the Stone Temple Pilots. The venue was the Olympia in Dublin which, it has to be said, has seen better days. Choice of seats was not ideal either as we ended up (sitting) upstairs.

The band played for an hour and a bit and stuck pretty much to a greatest hits set. They sounded tight, in a kind of old school rock n roll way, and singer Scott Weiland remained lucid and coherent (though his choice of a 3 piece suit to wear on stage was bizarre). All the classics were present and correct (Vasoline, Plush, Interstate Love Song etc). Low points were, as expected, the songs from the new album. Apart from Between the Lines, the other tracks they played compared very poorly with the stronger material from their back catalogue.

Special mention to the first encore, where Weiland climbed up to the balcony and belted out Dead and Bloated, which rocked hard and heavy. They finished with Tripping On A Hole in a Paper Heart, which with it’s chorus of “I’m not dead and I’m not for sale” felt like a triumph. They worked the crowd well, and Weiland is a kind of old-fashioned frontman who entertains as well as just playing the music.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Album Review: Smog – Knock Knock

Bill Callahan again worked with Jim O’Rourke on this 1999 album. It’s more expansive and diverse than previous album Red Apple Falls, indeed almost poppy, though it features a downright odd picture of a cat on the front!

The album opens with a sparse simple track, Let’s Move To The Country, consisting of Bill Callahan singing over a cello and a barely strummed guitar, but he follows this up with guitar anthem Held, which contains a great riff and beat. River Guard is a somewhat lengthy track, starting with the merest of guitar strums, before a wonderful piano part enters the mix. It’s a beautiful melody which builds up with percussion and more piano, before a great electric guitar before the end and gripping images in the lyrics (“stand there on a cliff with gooseflesh”).

He completely changes the mood with the first of his experiments featuring a children’s choir, the throwaway No Dancing, to which he sees fit to add heavy guitar and horns. He called this his album for teenagers, though I can’t imagine this being a teen anthem, however singalong it is! Teenage Spaceship is another brooding track with more gorgeous piano, while Cold Blooded Old Times is another uptempo, poppy tune featuring “the type of memories that turn your bones to glass” over strummed guitar.

After the moody Sweet Treat, Hit The Ground Running is another track featuring the children’s choir over a Velvet Underground-ish groove while Bill Callahan drawls agreeably through the song. The final 2 tracks return to the default Smog setting of sparseness. The album is a bit all over the place so it’s not a good one in terms of setting a mood, but it is probably his most trademark album in terms of the ‘Smog sound’.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tower Records – making a point

I was in Tower Records on Wicklow Street the other day. It’s my default spot to get new music or music related stuff. There’s always something way cooler about carrying a Tower bag than a HMV bag. Road Records and Freebird are great too, but they don’t have the same range of stuff that Tower have.

Apart from CDs, they have a great range of vinyl, books (music and otherwise) and DVDs, along with headphones, speakers and other cool stuff. The one at Easons on O’Connell Street is good too. Anyway back to my visit the other day. They are now selling apples for 5 cents. Good juicy red ones. When I asked them they said “Tesco are undercutting us with CDs, so we’re undercutting them.”

There is something distasteful about buying a CD in Tesco, along with your toilet roll, green peppers and teabags. I did it once (a Velvet Revolver CD) and won’t do it again. Although they are cheaper, the music just becomes a sort of product. Music matters. More so than groceries. Although it’s a kind of Canute-like gesture, holding back the inevitable, it’s also a dignified way of making a small point.

I have found many gems in there over the years. There’s also something very satisfying about just walking into the shop and buying an album, rather than ordering it online or downloading it. If we all just look for the cheapest avenue to get our music that only leads to one thing: music having no value put on it.

They now have a facebook page too:!/pages/Dublin-Ireland/Tower-Dublin/121634337875857?ajaxpipe=1&__a=4